Trash or Treasure: Civil War items avidly collected

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News
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“The North may have won the Civil War, but when it comes to Civil War artifacts and memorabilia, the Confederacy seems to hold a strategic lead in terms of market share and desirability,” explained a 2018 article on Civil War collecting on the Live Auctioneers website (

Brian Thomczek explained why at a recent appraisal session held at the Michigan Design Center in Troy, where Norm Lyle brought in a fascinating and rare Civil War relic that he had inherited from his family who traced their lineage back to Tennessee. “Civil War items of any kind are avidly collected,” the appraiser said. “Confederate States of America items are even more avidly sought after and can be worth more because there are less of them out there.”

Norm Lyle with a framed pass allowing its holder through the Confederate Army lines.

According to Lyle, his great-great uncle, David Hughes Lyle, had been a spy for the Union forces. Passed down through their family is a piece of paper that once belonged to him that dated to 1863 and allowed him to pass safely through Confederate lines. The framed, two-sided notice has been in his family as long as he can remember and hung in the foyer when he was a child, Lyle told the appraiser. His ancestor, he said, was born in 1839 and died in 1866. A Google search of his name revealed little additional information; Lyle said some of the background had been found by a family member on

In the collecting world, paper items such as Lyle’s are technically known as “ephemera.” According to the, “In a nutshell, to collectors “ephemera” are vintage printed or written items which originally served some specific purpose and were not expected to be retained or preserved” but can now offer interesting and valuable glimpses into the past.

Lyle’s piece, which has a printed image on the left and “Confederate States of America” at the top, is small but important, the appraiser said. “This looks really, really good,” Thomczek told Lyle about its authenticity, probable date and provenance. “There are a lot of fakes and reproductions out there but this one really feels right. Even the frame is old and it may actually even be the 19th-century original.”

The fact that it has been in his family as long as it has lends it even more credibility, the appraiser added. “Most of the items of this sort were burned,” Thomczek said, which makes it especially rare – and especially desirable to collectors. For that reason, he appraised the piece of paper at “at least $400 to $600 at auction” adding “but who knows how high it could go if someone really wanted it?”

The appraiser added that while even everyday CSA items are collected, ones with big names attached bring the most money at auction or online. “This would be even better if it had been signed by Robert E. Lee,” the appraiser joked.

Lyle had a comeback for the appraiser. “We have a pair of George Washington’s socks,” he quipped. “We’ll bring those next time.”

About this item

Item: Civil War ephemera

Owned by: Norm Lyle

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: $400 and up

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